If I’m allowed to start this piece on a slightly off-topic note, Reading’s Man of the Match on Saturday against Bolton was their keeper, Ali Al-Habsi.
Against a very poor Championship side in Bolton, Al-Habsi needed to make three outstanding saves in the first 15 minutes, as well as produce another couple of excellent stops during the rest of the match. The hosts’ defence that day featured a certain Michael Hector, who is on loan at the Madejski after being bought by Chelsea during the summer.
For each of the excellent chances Bolton created, at best he could have done a little better, at worst he was massively at fault for each. My point here is that throwing him into the Premier League, for the under-pressure defending champions and their equally under-pressure manager, might be a step too far.
Hector is generally considered to be one of the Championship’s most promising young centre-backs, and the fact that he’s an English academy product doesn’t hurt either. He first came to prominence at the Madejski after a successful loan spell at Aberdeen in the first half of the 2013/14 season, when his performances earned him rave reviews from Dons supporters who were disappointed that ‘Big Hec’, was not signed from the Royals on a permanent basis.
It soon became clear that he would be in and around the first team from then on, with his debut and a succession of starts following quickly. Interestingly, several of these appearances saw him feature as a deep-lying central midfielder, and at that point it was thought a defensive midfield berth could well end up as his natural position due to his poise on the ball and languid, elegant style.
Of course, such a relaxed style does have a downside. Hector showed an alarming capacity at times during last season to get himself into trouble by overplaying at times when a simple clearance would have sufficed. This overconfidence is, in fact, his only real problem, which can transmit itself into a lack of consistency.
This has carried over to this season, when his clumsiness and confusion whilst in possession has seen him get caught out several times, leading to chances, and occasionally goals, for the opposition.
On the other hand, it has also been evident that Hector is a defender of rare natural ability who will one day be perfectly at home at a top 10 Premier League side. He can compete aerially with the best of strikers, is strong in the tackle and his positional play is getting better with every passing game under the tutelage of a solidly defensive-minded coach like Steve Clarke.
In some games towards the end of last season, the 2-1 defeat by Arsenal in the FA Cup semi final, for example, he was easily the best Reading player on the pitch. He seemed to be an insurmountable barrier beyond which strikers simply could not pass. His coolness on the ball also means that when he is in good form he can easily pass the ball out and start free-flowing attacks, or simply stride out and take play up the other end of the pitch.
It is possible to see, therefore, why Chelsea have signed Hector in the first place. However, the idea that a raw, inexperienced central defender who has never played in the Premier League, can suddenly come in and put right a defence that has been as leaky as Chelsea’s is a fallacy.
If players like John Terry, Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma cannot put things right, what chance does Hector have? I believe it would seriously harm his development to throw him into the deep end like this long before he has shown himself to be consistent enough to be able to swim.